Capturing the Facebook Flag: Harvard, Yale Students Launch Rival “Social Online Sports” Companies

How to Build a Web Startup: Step 1: Get into a prestigious university like Yale, Harvard, or Stanford. Step 2: Organize some kind of Web-mediated event or service, and get a few thousand of your fellow students to participate. Step 3: Start answering the calls from venture capitalists and online advertisers.

It worked for Facebook, and now it seems to be working for two separate Internet companies, GoCrossCampus and Kirkland North, that have sprung up to commercialize the concept behind Old Campus Tree Risk, a team-based online strategy game staged by a group of Yale undergrads in early 2007.

Both companies’ systems help college groups and other organizations mount simulated, massively multiplayer campaigns to conquer “territory” such as the campus green—or the entire Northeast, in the case of an Ivy League championship run by GoCrossCampus last fall. The games resemble the classic board games Risk or Diplomacy, but with the board transposed onto online maps representing real geographies inhabited by the players, and with the action coordinated in a combination of online sessions and real-world team meetings.

GoCrossCampus calls the new genre “locally social online sports.” And it’s catching on fast: at Yale, 3,300 undergrads—60 percent of the student body—participated in the first game of Old Campus Tree Risk. Some 11,000 students from eight schools joined GoCrossCampus’s Ivy League championship (which was won by Princeton), and a recent game sponsored by Kirkland North at Stanford involved 750 students.

Now Kirkland North and GoCrossCampus seem poised for a skirmish of their own. Both companies credit Facebook and other online social networking systems for salvaging the Web from geekdom and making it a part of mainstream campus social life—but both acknowledge that there probably isn’t room on the market for two companies offering campus-centered, map-based strategy games (just as there wasn’t room at Harvard for both Facebook and its early competitor, ConnectU).

A somewhat sensationalistic blog post last week by TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington fanned the flames of the rivalry by saying that Kirkland North’s founders felt GoCrossCampus had stolen their business idea. That has some people directly comparing the rivalry to the extended legal battle between ConnectU and Facebook, in which the smaller company has accused Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg of stealing its basic software code to launch his own business. But both gaming companies, reached by Xconomy over the weekend, tried to extinguish the fracas.

Map from GoCrossCampus’s Ivy League ChampionshipArrington, after the March 21 publication of a New York Times article extolling GoCrossCampus, wrote that “The Kirkland North guys are obviously irate over what they see as a blatant rip-off of their idea.” But judging from my interview with GoCrossCampus CEO and co-founder Brad Hargreaves, a Yale senior, it’s clear that the GoCrossCampus team was the first to leverage the campus-strategy-game idea into a business. In fact, Hargreaves says he invited Gabe Smedresman, the inventor of Old Campus Tree Risk, to join the project well before Smedresman and several Harvard students founded Kirkland North.

Hargreaves recounted the course of events around March 2007, as the first game of Old Campus Tree Risk was winding down: “I was president of the Yale Entrepreneurial Society at that time, and I said, ‘Hey, this is really cool, I think it could make a great Internet business.’ So one other friend and I reached out to Gabe and said, ‘Hey man, do you want to start a company?’ He was pretty skeptical about how you would turn it into a company. And he was going to work full-time for Google the next year. So he wished us luck, and that was the last we heard of him for a while.”

Hargreaves and four friends—Matthew Brimer, Sean Mehra, and Jeff Reitman from Yale, and Isaac Silverman from Columbia—pushed ahead with GoCrossCampus, starting from code that Smedresman had released to the open-source community after the Old Campus Tree Risk game. Over the summer, the company raised $375,000 in seed funding from Easton Capital and WGI fund. Hargreaves says he contacted Smedresman in May and again at mid-summer to invite him to be an advisor to the company, with equity. “He said he had other things going on and that he couldn’t do it,” says Hargreaves. “We said, ‘Okay, we’re just going to do this ourselves, then.'”

The GoCrossCampus team heard nothing more of Smedresman, Hargreaves says, until Kirkland North staged its own strategy game, rechristened Turf, at Stanford University in February. (The Stanford game ended just two weeks ago, on March 16.) “Our intelligence on them was pretty crappy,” Hargreaves admits. “We had no idea they were doing it.”

While in apparent stealth mode, Kirkland North—which Smedresman started with Andrew Fong, Matt O’Brien and Hugo Van Vuuren, three Harvard students who led the winning team during “Harvard Risk” in May 2007—had reconceived Old Campus Tree Risk as Turf; they had then been accepted into the winter session of Y Combinator, investor-entrepreneur Paul Graham’s semiannual startup camp, and built a largely new code base.

Smedresman, whom I reached last night in California, disputed suggestions that his team was surprised or upset about the existence of GoCrossCampus, or that Hargreaves’ group had stolen the idea from Kirkland North. “I wasn’t the one to speak to Mike Arrington, but that’s absolutely not how it happened,” says Smedresman, who’s now a software designer for Google Sites. “We did not mean for that article to come out with the ‘irate’ terminology. I talked with the GoCrossCampus people for a while, but we parted amicably. I have nothing but good will for them.”

Smedresman does, of course, show some competitive spirit: “We have creative differences,” he says. “I think the way we are doing it will be the way that works. But we wish GoCrossCampus well. It’s totally okay that they are also working on a derivative of Old Campus Tree Risk.”

Hargreaves is equally conciliatory. He says he doubts that Smedresman was already cooking up his own company when he turned down GoCrossCampus’s offers of an advisory post. “Gabe’s a good guy and a very honest person,” Hargreaves says.

And while it might be useful—on the any-publicity-is-good-publicity theory—for GoCrossCampus to be compared to Facebook in the ConnectU case, that’s just not the real story, Hargreaves says. “As much as I like being compared to Mark Zuckerberg—which is what I think the analogy would make me—there’s not much of a parallel. ConnectU’s main claim is that Zuckerberg used their code. Gabe acknowledges that we didn’t use any of his code, and that he has no legal claim to the concept, because he released it to the public domain after the Yale game.”

Much more interesting than the mini-tempest over priority is the phenomenon of mixed online-offline social gaming that both companies have helped to stir up—-and whether, or how, each company can capitalize on it.

Map from Kirkland North’s Stanford Turf GameThe mechanics of Turf and GoCrossCampus are so simple that they’re almost beside the point. In a nutshell: players belong to teams representing territories such as dormitories or campus quadrants. The game proceeds in turns, usually one turn per day, and every player gets one army per turn. Players log on to a central website once per day and direct their army to either defend their own team’s territory, attack a neighboring territory held by another team, or move between territories held by its own team. (The moves players choose are typically planned out in daily face-to-face “councils of war” led by team captains.) If one territory’s armies destroy those of a neighboring territory, they can occupy the conquered space. The game continues until one team controls the entire map, or until all teams negotiate an armistice.

The games seem to appeal to college students because they exploit the immediacy and accessibility of the Web—where all players can see the game map and participate in chats and other forms of online social networking—in the context of on-campus rivalries, such as those between dorms or fraternities or colleges, that are nearly as old as the university system itself.

“We wouldn’t have been able to do this before Facebook,” says Hargreaves. “Facebook made college students comfortable with the being on a website, sharing their information, and generally interacting with others in a way that’s not nerdy. But I think the reason why this really takes off at colleges is a mixture of that Facebook factor and the fact that people see this not as an online game but as an intramural sport. The game is not really what matters. What makes it work is people saying, ‘That’s my dorm, that’s my team, I want to play for them, I want to support them.”

Smedresman agrees. “People get really excited when there’s something going on that involves their home territory,” he says. (Indeed, the name Kirkland North, he says, derives from a particularly climactic series of events from last year’s game at Harvard, where Kirkland House is one of the dorms for upperclassmen.) The original Old Campus Tree Risk, Smedresman says, “was really all about this idea of an online game that had a presence in the real world. Even more important than the specifics of the rules was just this idea of having a game going on that was reflected in the group, that uses the real social network, which is everyone’s friends.”

These days, of course, any activity that gets people online daily is seen as a business opportunity. And while neither the GoCrossCampus team nor the team at Kirkland North is entirely sure how they will monetize their games, both companies are convinced that lucrative revenue streams will bubble up.

At GoCrossCampus, players don’t pay to enter. Sponsoring organizations such as student governments do pay a fee if they want the company to handle the extensive on-campus marketing that goes along with setting up a game; but if they take care of that part themselves (which they have in every case so far), there’s no charge. GoCrossCampus plans to run for-profit games as team-building exercises for corporations—in fact, Google’s New York office has signed up for a game, according to the New York Times article. And eventually, GoCrossCampus will sell advertising on its website. “Advertising is going to be a big revenue stream down the road,” predicts Hargreaves. “Ever since the New York Times article came out, we’ve been getting a lot of requests [from companies interested in] sponsoring games or advertising in games.”

At Kirkland North (which was until recently called Space Capsule Games), the business plan sounds a little less developed. “All I can say is that Facebook itself is still looking to see how they can monetize what they have,” says Smedresman. “So I don’t feel too bad that we still have to work that out.”

I asked both Hargreaves and Smedresman whether, in the end, they think there’s room for two opposing companies under the old campus tree. “If the two companies are running the exact same game, probably not,” answered Smedresman. “From what I’ve seen of GoCrossCampus, they’ve stayed pretty similar to what Old Campus Tree Risk was. But we’re looking to expand and innovate in a lot of ways.”

Hargreaves answered similarly—but seemed to suggest that he expects Kirkland North to flinch first. In the market for Risk-like campus games, he says, “I don’t think that in the long term there is room for two companies.” But the team-based gaming space—by which Hargreaves means online games with factions build around groups with preexisting rivalries—“is very open, and I think there is room for more than one company in that space,” he says. “The Kirkland North guys are smart, and since they are an earlier-stage company, without VC backing yet other than Y Combinator, I think they will be agile enough that they will find a place where they can succeed. Right now we’re kind of like two people walking down the hallway toward each other. You both move right, then you both move left and then right again. We are getting in each other’s way, because we haven’t yet figured out a way so we can both walk down the hall.”

Wade Roush is the producer and host of the podcast Soonish and a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @soonishpodcast

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  • Justin Savage

    I would just like to point out an incorrect statement

    “at Yale, 3,300 undergrads—60 percent of the student body—participated in the first game of Old Campus Tree Risk”

    I have 40 accounts at GXC, while some of my friends have up to 200, that way we individually have more power.

    To say 60% of the campus plays is downright wrong. There are perhaps 80 of us who see the glory of GXC, and to associate us with those losers gives all of us a bad name.

    – Justin